Monsanto, the giant farming chemical company, is headed for a lifetime of lawsuits over its weed killer RoundUp. This story is just the first in many that will reveal the rot of our agricultural system. As a result, our food system and environment are about to get a massive makeover that could be the biggest story of the next decade.
First, a little history.
As America moved West in the 19th century, settlers found bountiful grasslands populated with up to 50 million buffalo and vast herds of other wildlife.
By the 1930s, much of the best grassland had been cleared for crops and plowed relentlessly. Eliminating buffalo, removing grasses and plowing over 100 million acres led to the massive loss of topsoil in the horrific Dust Bowl. Often thought as a weather tragedy, the Dust Bowl was a man-made environmental disaster caused by poor farming techniques and soil tilling. It left the food supply vulnerable as America was trying to get out of the Great Depression.
But, this environmental tragedy and humanitarian crisis led to new innovations in food technology. The so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1950s and 60s was the start of a massive change in agricultural technology. Fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, high yield seeds, and other technologies caused crop productivity to rise dramatically despite weakened soil. Chemicals and engineering filled the void of nature and the world was fed in abundance as costs dropped. The techniques also spread globally, feeding the rising populations of India, China, and Africa.
But, the Green Revolution had a major flaw. It tackled the symptom (low yields) not the cause (soil destruction) of the food crisis. The negative implications to our food, health and environment have been profound.
We built an industrial food system based on high-density mono-cultures requiring ever-increasing use of chemicals to make up for low-nutrient soil.
We have an oversupply of soybean and corn, driving sugar consumption and now, diabetes rates, through the roof.
We have a $10 billion per year Farm Bill, that pays for the chemicals, reinforces bad practices, and harms the small time farmer. These subsidies hide the real cost of our cheap grains and sugar.
And, of course, cancer. It’s always hard to isolate causes of complex diseases, but if you don’t think 300 million pounds of chemicals per year (in the US) could cause some harm, well, it just defies belief.
This madness must end. But, in the last 10 years, it has just ramped up. Monsanto doesn’t just sell RoundUp to kill weeds; it also now sells genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seeds to ensure no crop harm from the increasing amounts of chemicals needed to fend off resistant bugs and disease. The race is on for new chemicals, new breeds, new antibiotics. And the path of destruction widens.
But, a radically better alternative is also emerging and starting to gain traction. It involves harnessing nature and finally addressing the root cause of the issue - damaged soil. This alternative will allow us to heal our damaged soil and grow natural food (yes, in plentiful quantities) by harnessing the natural ecosystem of the land.
The most common name for this movement is regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture harnesses nature to maintain output; it focuses on increasing biodiversity in a way that allows nature to do all the hard work. The shift is in direct opposition to our current beliefs and policies. It involves removing our monoculture super farms (instead rotating crops for diversity and soil health), using cover crops and ruminants (yes, cows) to rebuild soils and grasses, and breeding for natural results (versus poison resistance). The results involve no chemicals or antibiotics, just healthier food and a healthier environment—including nutrient-rich soil that sequesters more carbon. Finally, it gives the small farmer a role to play as it requires less capital and lower operating costs. If you want to read a full, well-thought-out case, read this great piece by Nick Jeffries.
Regenerative agriculture uses science to understand and harness the environment—not just develop ways to deal with the abuse of it. The movement is in its early days and scaling it will require huge shifts in our education system, our policies, and customer demand. Five billion dollars of RoundUp sales will keep a lobbying machine going for a long time to perpetuate current methods. But, perhaps Monsanto will use the time to turn their focus to powering this new paradigm. They are facing the truth of a better approach regardless. For the sake of our health, environment, and economy—we all need to embrace it.